by Luisa Black | Zoom Out Mycology
Virginia Beach, VA
On May 10th, 2017, a sailor on the Oceana Navy base of Virginia Beach, VA left a switch in the wrong position, and 94,000 gallons of JP-5 jet fuel spilled into the surrounding waterways, saltwater marshes, and ditches (Vergakis). Within days, dozens of animals in and around the affected waterways were found dead (Parker, “Jet fuel vapors”). Residents of the surrounding neighborhood of London Bridge reported sore throats, coughing, dizziness, headaches, and, perhaps most worrisomely, their children’s repeated nosebleeds in the immediate aftermath. The stench of burning gas hung heavy in the air for weeks afterward, choking the breath of those even briefly passing through (Parker, “Residents return”).
Cristin Pullman, a resident of London Bridge neighborhood, watched helplessly with her child as men in hazmat suits performed unknown operations on her backyard, which sits directly on the affected Wolfsnare Creek, immediately after the fuel spill. One worker passed out while working in her yard and had to be carried out on a stretcher (Pullman).
She and others struggling with consequent health problems, anxiety, and confusion ensuing the spill were assured that the level of exposure they were experiencing was well within an acceptable limit, according to federal health reports on JP-5 jet fuel. What they were not told is that those reports were specific to healthy workers within the age ranges of 18-65, and did not address prolonged exposure to fumes on elderly or sickly people, secondary poisoning due to crop or water contamination over time, or the effect of the fuel fumes and exposure on children under the age of 18, who are abundant in London Bridge (“Hess Safety Data Sheet: Jet Fuel JP5”). JP-5 jet fuel is known to be carcinogenic upon direct exposure, deadly if ingested, persistent in soil, and likely to move through soil into the water table (“Toxicological profile for JP-5, JP-8, and Jet A fuels”).
When asked what their plan was to mitigate the devastating damage done to the soil and the ecosystems of London Bridge, a representative of the Navy simply said that “microbial activity” would take care of it. Though oleophilic microorganisms, a type of microbe, have been shown to help biodegrade hydrocarbons, they must be targeted, applied and monitored - to imply that whatever cocktail of microbes that already exists in the soil will be enough to safely degrade the jet fuel spilled in a timely manner is ill-informed at best, and deliberately misleading the public about a safety hazard at worst (Varjani, 277).
A week after the jet fuel spill, after prolonged community complaints about the hazardous conditions of the neighborhood, the Navy base announced a “voluntary evacuation” and issued hotel vouchers for those leaving the area. Many suggested that the exceedingly slow response, misinformation, failure to plan for restoration and clean-up, and lack of city-wide outrage are due to the fact that the jet fuel spill affected a predominantly working class neighborhood with little influence in local politics (Dougherty). A significantly contributing factor in the overall hush-hush treatment of the negative health impacts was also likely the fact that the responsible party was a Navy base, an institution with more political and financial power than any individual or group in the area. Is just accountability possible when all the logistical odds are so heavily stacked in favor of the injuring party? Obviously, from logging, to water safety in Flint, to the Dakota Access Pipeline, this is a persistent question in issues of environmental justice. If the injured people are some of the most powerless and voiceless people in the country, and the injuring parties are the most powerful, loud, and influential institutions in the world, how will a battle for the sympathy of a national audience play out? How much will sympathy without direct action really matter?
Six months later, nothing has been done to heal the contaminated soil, plants, and animals affected. The ecosystems affected are contiguous with the mighty Great Dismal Swamp, which once sprawled throughout what is now Virginia Beach, where the responsible Navy base squats. It is interesting to note that the Great Dismal Swamp is, in many senses, where Western military desecration of North American wilderness began. The Washington Ditch, not far from Oceana, was the first victim of settlers’ incursion into the swamp. “George Washington was the first to see economic opportunity in the vast coastal swamp south [....] In 1763, he formed a company with fellow investors to drain the swamp, exploit its timber resources and dig canals for transportation. This is the first canal, completed in the late 1760s, and excavated by slaves” (Grant). Later, the Great Dismal was to become the refuge of an untold number of maroon communities, mini-societies of escaped slaves, debt fugitives, and Atlantic Native American people fleeing massacre or enslavement. The Washington Ditch and replications of it would later be used as staging grounds for hunting down and destroying those communities. This was not to be the last time that the black and poor communities in America were coerced onto the front lines of hazardous development projects that would eventually turn into platforms for the destruction of their homes and neighborhoods (Grant).
Ecological harm for the same old communities
Beyond the anthropological significance of the wetlands and its destruction by the American military; the ecological significance of saltwater marshes and their contribution to Atlantic ecosystems, animals, and humans spans far and wide. Marshes sequester carbon and filter sediments, metals, pesticides, and nutrients from penetrating the waterways they feed. They provide a shield against rising floodwaters and storm damage (Brown). This is a persistent and pressing concern for Virginia Beach and neighboring Norfolk, which are being slowly swallowed by rising sea levels and climate change driven storms. Saltwater marshes are also some of the most productive and diverse ecosystems on earth, and their slow build-up of organic material over time creates a highly unique and useful resource, peat moss. Peat moss harvesting, ditching, draining, unsustainable fertilization practices, and logging have all significantly reduced areas of swamp and marshland in Virginia (Brown). When we lose these ecosystems, we lose not only the vast array of ecosystem services and defenses they provide but also their natural beauty and the critical anthropological histories they hold. In light of this, the sudden and meaningless death of London Bridge’s swathe of marsh, though small, is particularly devastating.
Thankfully, even if it’s difficult for the protests of a little working class neighborhood to be heard in the face of an institutional giant, there are ways we can directly apply DIY remediation and restoration to damaged ecosystems, without needing to petition a middleman. Soil saturated with toxic compounds may be temporarily damaged, but not necessarily past the point of no return - given enough study and care, it can be eased along the process towards restoration by a tender steward, and once again regain the ability to sustain the hyper-diverse network of life unique to soil. Though the Naval representatives suggestion that microbes already in the soil along the shorelines would break down the hydrocarbons was an ignorant one, there is a kernel of truth in it. There are, in fact, an array of organic materials that can degrade or concentrate toxic and complex molecules like the hydrocarbons found in jet fuel. Even better, you don’t need elaborate equipment or a PhD in order to apply them to your own backyard and even measure the progress.
What kind of solutions are available?
Mycoremediation refers to the process of introducing different strains of fungi to a soil web or water system to biodegrade or hyper-accumulate the toxic substances that are disrupting its life systems. Fungi perform the role of remediation with ease and efficiency because of several factors. Firstly, fungi are evolutionarily adapted from billions of years to work communally, collaboratively, and interdependently within the soil web. Because of this tendency towards interdependence, they are highly sensitive, adaptive, and communicative to their surroundings, which uniquely equips them to respond to unexpected changes to an ecosystem more quickly than other organisms. This speed is essential not only in their role in attacking the pollutant but their response and strength also supports other microbes and organisms necessary to the decomposition of the pollutant. Those microbes may be essential to the degradation process, but entirely unsupported without the existence of fungi, and so, unable to do their job. Fixing a big mistake is not a problem that any one person or organism can do on its own, and the way the fungi operates within the soil web acknowledges that, making space and giving life support to other living creatures that have a different role in the same task (Schindler).
Secondly, many fungi have the ability to decompose lignin of trees, which are very complex, carbon-based plant cell compounds. These cell structures are normally very difficult to break down because of their complexity and strong molecular bonds, just like hydrocarbons. Because of this, the Basidiomycotan fungi that feed off of tree materials have evolved highly fine-tuned and elaborately structured digestive enzymes uniquely capable of breaking down strong carbon-based bonds. Not only that, but these fungi are capable of adapting the digestive enzymes they secrete in real-time. There are no naturally occurring fungi that we know of that have evolved specifically to subsist on hydrocarbons, but most Basidiomycetes, if introduced slowly to hydrocarbon compounds, will intelligently adjust their enzyme composition in order to successfully digest and uptake hydrocarbons or other similar pollutants (Schindler). Many of these Basidiomycetes are not rare fungi, but rather some of the most commonly recognizable mushrooms we see in our daily lives - Turkey Tail, Garden Giants, and Honey mushrooms are all examples of white-rot Basidiomycetes with this awesome power.
In creating a remediation plan for a saltmarsh affected by hydrocarbon pollution, like London Bridge, it makes sense to choose a species of fungus that has been shown to be salt-tolerant. In this case, the white rot fungus pleurotus ostreatus (common name pearl oyster) has been recently found tolerant to salt exposure, and is well-researched in its ability to establish in an ecosystem and adapt its digestive processes to complex hydrocarbons quickly (Zizzo). It is also edible (when not growing in hazardous conditions) and native to North America, so if it were to spread from a hazardous site to other surrounding ecosystems, it would be a beneficial side effect rather than a problem, as in the case of invasive species like the Honey mushroom.
But, why mycology?
Though there are many ways to bio-remediate soil health after pollution, remediation with fungi is unique because it is so accessible to the layperson - it’s not necessary to special order expensive lab equipment or microbial compounds. A large batch of Pearl Oyster mycelium can be ordered for as little as $20, and creating a bed is as easy as breaking up and spreading the spores, keeping them shaded, and watering them. Furthermore, introducing a beneficial fungus into an ecosystem and soil web not only attacks the problem directly, it also indirectly supports untold thousands of other organisms that all contribute to the soil’s return to thriving productivity and balance. When devastating pollution is created by toxic hierarchies, lack of communal accountability and interdependence, and disregard for the marginalized in London Bridge and similar neighborhoods, there’s something poetic about exploring solutions that the most marginalized and affected people can enact directly, and which affirm horizontally organized mutual support and interdependence. If we can create healthy communities in the face of devastation on a microscopic level, maybe we will be all the more equipped to create them in our macroscopic social lives.
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About the author:
Luisa Black is a community organizer, community gardener, and overall community enthusiast sowing seeds and spreading spores for a liberatory vision of the future in Norfolk, VA. She is a language arts educator and a Brazilian anarchist with a fondness for leftist southerners, swamps, mushrooms, and everything else you have to take a little extra time to understand. Her study of social ecology has led her to believe that "no one can be free until we are all free, and that we cannot fight environmental collapse and decay without defending those whom environmental injustice affects the most."
Brown, Paige. “The not-so-mysterious loss of salt marshes and ecosystem services.” Scientific American, 12 March 2013, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-not-so-mysterious-loss-of-salt-marshes-and-ecosystem-services/. Accessed 3 November 2017.
“HESS Safety Data Sheet: Jet Fuel JP5.” Hess, http://www.hess.com/docs/us-safety-data-sheets/jet-fuel-jp-5.pdf. Accessed 3 November 2017.
Dougherty, Kerry. “Outcry would have been heard in Richmond, had jet fuel spill happened in more affluent part of Virginia Beach.” The Virginian-Pilot, 18 May 2017, https://pilotonline.com/news/local/columnist/kerry-dougherty/outcry-would-have-been-heard-in-richmond-had-jet-fuel/article_03f9f64e-82f2-537f-af0c-7a5523197695.html. Accessed 3 November 2017.
Grant, Richard. “Deep in the swamps, archaeologists are finding how fugitive slaves kept their freedom: The Great Dismal Swamp was once a thriving refuge for runaways.” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/deep-swamps-archaeologists-fugitive-slaves-kept-freedom-180960122/. Accessed 3 November 2017.
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Parker, Stacey. “Residents return to their homes in Virginia Beach after Oceana jet fuel spill. But questions linger.” The Virginian-Pilot, 2 June 2017, https://pilotonline.com/news/local/environment/residents-return-to-their-homes-in-virginia-beach-after-oceana/article_6cc56dd2-a11a-54a6-b2dc-02cf0a71cb85.html. Accessed 3 November 2017.
Pullman, Cristin. Personal Interview. 31 October 2017.
Schindler, Ja. “Mycoremediation: Focusing on soil remediation with fungi.” Fungi For The People, https://fungiforthepeople.org/mushroom-info/myco-remediation/. Accessed 3 November 2017.
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Vergakis, Brock. “Navy charges sailor with dereliction of duty in connection with Oceana jet fuel spill.” The Virginian-Pilot, 29 September 2017, https://pilotonline.com/news/military/local/navy-charges-sailor-with-dereliction-of-duty-in-connection-with/article_5025d1d6-50bc-5d5a-9410-eac0f2512aba.html. Accessed 3 November 2017.
Zizzo, Andrew. “The effects of road salt on mushroom-forming saprophitic fungi.” Undergraduate Thesis, Carthage College, 2009.
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